The Sacrifice of Following Jesus

Lectionary 29B, October 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Mark, although the first Gospel written, was first completed about 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ death.  At that point, John was still alive, although James was not.  He’d been killed in the year 44AD, the first of the Twelve Disciples to be martyred.  Peter and Paul had also been killed by then, and Jesus’ brother James, and Stephen the Deacon, and others.  So when this passage was first read aloud in its present form, and those first listeners heard how James and John had requested power and glory beside Jesus in his kingdom, and been given a call to serve and die instead, they understood it far better than we do today.  They knew what service meant; they knew what giving your life away meant.  The organized, widespread persecutions of Christians were yet to come, but it was already a dangerous thing to serve Christ, with consequences that could sometimes prove fatal.  In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, nobody became a Christian expecting wealth and power.  The very idea would have been incomprehensible.  If wealth and power are your goal, you do not choose to join a group whose founder and leader died in the most humiliatingly painful way possible, a group made up mostly of poor people, women, foreigners, outcasts, slaves, and other unesirables.  If power and influence are your goal, you do not join a group dedicated to service and submission.  Power and influence are the ways of the world.  They are antithetical to the Christian life.

Christians today don’t really get this.  Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long that we can hear Jesus’ words condemning worldly power and the behavior of the powerful, and not connect it to anything about our own behavior.  We are used to power, and we don’t know what true sacrifice is.  Or true persecution.  I’ve had faithful Christians tell me that Christians are being persecuted because people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  We Christians are fast losing our cultural power, it’s true, but being less powerful is not the same as being persecuted, and many Christians today follow James and John’s belief from our Gospel that power is something Christians should seek.  We give lip service to serving others, we give lip service to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” but we don’t really know what it means.

So let’s look at what Jesus meant, and what that looked like in his life and the lives of early Christians.  For Jesus, service came in two forms: earthly service, and spiritual service, although he didn’t really separate them out that way.  For Jesus, they seem to have been all the same.  He healed the sick and forgave their sins at the same time.  He fed the hungry.  He built community wherever he went, eating with sinners and religious authorities.  All were welcome.  If any had a need—physical or spiritual—that he could fill, he did.  And if any criticized him for doing so, he rebuked them regardless of their power.  He taught anyone who would listen, regardless of who they were or what they had done in the past.  He loved them all, and welcomed them even when society objected.  He offended a lot of people by eating with sinners and outcasts.  He did it anyway, because loving his neighbors—ALL his neighbors—was more important to him than cosying up to the powerful.  If Jesus had spent less time building community with outcasts and welcoming the downtrodden and more time upholding the existing social order, the authorities probably wouldn’t have felt so threatened by him that they chose to execute him.  But if he had sought earthly power, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the people who most needed him—the suffering, the sinners, the powerless.

In a very real way, his suffering and his death cannot be separated from his service.  When Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Everything he said and did was a service to others.  And it all culminated in his death.  He died to save the cosmos from sin and death, he died to redeem sinners, he died to serve the very people he had served in life: all people, of every tribe and race and class and category.  His suffering was not random, not the whim of a cruel and indifferent taskmaster.  Jesus suffered and died so that we might live.  This is not suffering for the sake of suffering.  Jesus came that we all—every human being ever created—might have life, and have it abundantly, both in this life and the next.  And he was willing to put in the work to make it happen, by serving people, body and soul, through feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving, and finally, by dying and rising again at Easter.

The early church followed Jesus far more closely than we do today.  The early church didn’t seek power or wealth; the early church served.  They fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited prisoners, and created communities in which nobody could lord it over anyone else.  They weren’t perfect; they were still sinful humans just like us, and they failed often, but by and large they worked to create communities where all were welcome, where all could hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and where hungry people were fed, sick people healed, naked people clothed, lonely people befriended, and nobody abused or abandoned or neglected.  And together, as the Body of Christ in the world, they did amazing things.  Just as Christians have done amazing things throughout history whenever we have let go of our own selfish expectations and truly devoted ourselves to following Jesus no matter where he leads.

And, just as people had been suspicious of Jesus for his service, people were suspicious of those early Christians.  Everybody wants power, or so the Roman Empire thought; so if Christians don’t seem to be seeking power the traditional way, they must be trying to overthrow the current order and set themselves up instead.  So Christians were persecuted.  Many were killed.  But still they kept serving.  St. Lawrence is my favorite example of the early church.  Lawrence was a deacon, which means “servant.”  He coordinated the church’s ministry in Rome.  It was his job to go out into the city, figure out what poor people needed, and help them get it.  He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, prayed for the sick and brought the medicine they needed.  Lawrence did anything and everything he could to see that everyone in his city had what they needed.  And, in so doing, he was publicly known as a Christian, and so when persecution started, he was one of the first brought to trial.  Now, because he was the head deacon, Lawrence was also in charge of all the money the church collected for charity.  And the judge knew that.  So the judge said, “I’ll let you go, if you give me the treasure of your church.”  Lawrence agreed, and said he would need a day to collect it.  So the judge released him.

The next day, Lawrence returned with the treasure of the church: all the poor people he served.  You see, Lawrence didn’t care for riches, or power; Lawrence cared for the grace and mercy of God.  Lawrence knew that the Christian life is not about safety or security, not about power or wealth or glory, but about service.  And when there is a conflict between the powers of this world and service to God, well, we’re not called to serve the powers of this world.  He followed Jesus’ example, and like Jesus, he was executed.  Legend says he was roasted alive over a griddle, and that his last words were “turn me over, I’m done on that side!”

We live in a much different world than those early Christians.  Nobody here will ever be in danger of being executed for being a Christian.  We won’t lose our jobs, or homes, or anything like that.  We have it a lot easier than Lawrence did!  And yet, we’ve forgotten what it means to truly serve.  Like James and John, we’ve let the world’s love of power and glory guide our views and goals, instead of Christ’s call to service.  We are seldom willing to follow Christ if it means going outside our comfort zone, or lowering our status, or dealing with people who are different from us.  And I wonder, what would it look like if we changed that.  What would it look like, if we put following Christ and serving the world at the top of our priority list?  What would it look like if we stopped judging by the world’s standards of power and glory and wealth and influence?

Amen

Sell all you have and give it to the poor

Lectionary 28B, October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-3, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

Most sermons I’ve heard on this topic have spent more time trying to explain away Jesus words than to explore them.  If you want a Bible passage guaranteed to bring out justifications of how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or he meant it, but it doesn’t apply to us, this is it.  There are several things in this passage that I suspect most of us—myself included—don’t really want to hear.  The first and most obvious is Jesus’ command to give up our property.  We like our wealth!  And even the poorest of us here today is probably wealthier than the rich guy in the Gospel was.  We have far more possessions than anyone in Jesus’ day would ever have dreamt of owning.  We may not be rich by the standards of the modern world, but we are rich compared to Jesus and most of his listeners—including the disciples.  Property is wonderful.  Our homes keep us warm and dry, give us safe places to store our stuff.  We have all these wonderful devices like stoves and washing machines and vacuums that make our lives easier and we also have things like televisions and computers that provide entertainment.  We have cars that allow us to go where we want.  Money and possessions can’t buy happiness—but they can sure fix a lot of the things that make us unhappy.  Money can buy safety and stability.  Money can buy help when we need it.  Money can buy anything from basic physical needs like food, water, and shelter to more ____ desires like “interesting things to do.”  Nobody wants to be poor.  Nobody wants to give up what they have.  Most people, given a chance, would MUCH rather have MORE stuff than we have now, rather than less.

Now, granted, money can do bad things.  Money can corrupt.  Money can be used to bribe.  People sometimes do terrible things to get money, or let their desire for money influence them to treat people badly.  People make decisions based on profit or cost rather than on ethics.  For example, after some recent exposes about just how bad things are on many cocoa plantations, Nestle announced that they couldn’t possibly stop buying cocoa beans from plantations that used slave labor because it would cost too much and they’d have to raise their prices.  And people judge others based more on how much money they have than by what sort of person they are, which is why poor families where the parents genuinely are trying to do their best for their children are more likely to have those children placed in foster care than rich families where the parents actively abuse their children.  Money can be used as a status symbol, to decide who matters and who doesn’t.  Money—or rather, a love of money allowed to dominate our thinking—can and does do a lot of evil.  All you have to do is read our Old Testament reading from Amos to hear just how the love of money can corrupt a society, and how dire and devastating it is when that happens.

The thing is, there’s no evidence that the guy with lots of possessions in our Gospel reading has been doing any of that.  He seems to be a faithful guy who genuinely wants to get closer to God, and has done his best to live a good life.  Society was small in those days, and there weren’t many rich people around.  If he were, say, using his power and wealth to cheat people or profit off of injustice, there’s a good chance the disciples would have known.  Jesus certainly would.  And it’s not mentioned.  This man with many possessions was probably not a bad person.  He says he’s been faithful all his life and tried to follow God’s commandments, and asks what else he needs to do.  Jesus looks at him, loves him, and tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.  And the guy goes away grieving, because he’s got a lot of possessions and he doesn’t want to sell them, any more than you or I would.  And Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved.

The disciples are shocked.  Absolutely SHOCKED.  Then, as now, people tend to take material wealth and success as measures of God’s love and blessing.  If you are rich, we think, you must be doing something right.  If you are successful, you must be doing something right.  Conversely, if you are poor, we often assume that you must be doing something wrong.  And if you were a good person, if you were doing everything you were supposed to, you wouldn’t be poor because you would have lifted yourself up with your own bootstraps and God would have rewarded you.  If you are rich, it’s because you deserve it, you’ve earned it, and God has blessed you for deserving it.  If you’re poor, it must be your own fault.  In this way of thinking, it’s not that a person can buy their way into heaven … but if they’ve got money, it’s usually a sign that they’re already in God’s good books and have earned salvation in some way.  Because no matter how many sermons we’ve heard on how salvation is a free gift of God, we still think of salvation as something we can earn, as something we can work hard enough to deserve.

Which is why, when Jesus says how hard it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, the disciples’ response—our response—is disbelief.  But the thing is, we can’t do anything to earn our way into God’s good books, and even if we could, it would have nothing to do with material possessions.  Money—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with how good a person you are.  Some people earn great wealth while being genuinely good people.  Some people get wealth through sheer luck, by being born into a family with money, or being exceptionally good at sports or music or something.  Some people get wealth by cheating and exploiting others.  And some people are poor because they make bad choices, but others are poor through sheer luck, by being born into a poor family in a bad area, or being disabled and unable to work, or only able to get jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.  And some people are poor because they’re being exploited or cheated.  The amount of money a person has tells you absolutely NOTHING about their character.

You know what money tells you?  How dependent someone is.  If you have enough money, you don’t need other people.  Or, at least, you don’t have to depend on them.  You can buy anything you need.  Food, shelter, a plane ticket to a better place, healthcare, a housekeeper or assistant to take care of all the little stuff, a lawyer to get you out of legal trouble, you name it, money can buy it.  And when you can get yourself out of most problems without outside help, you start to believe that everything good that happens in your life is because you earned it.  Even the stuff you didn’t earn, like your health, is because you deserve it, right?  And if you’re exploiting people or taking advantage of them, it’s not really wrong, because if they were smart they’d have managed to do as well as you did.  The more money you have, the easier it is not to care about other people.  The more money you have, the less important kindness seems: it’s easy to be kind, and it probably won’t cost you much, and it’s easy not to be kind, and if someone is not kind to you, it probably isn’t going to make a huge difference.  The more money you have, the less you have to depend on anybody but yourself.  The less you have to depend on God.

Poor people, by and large, don’t have the delusion of independence.  They know that their survival and well-being depend on the generosity of others.  They know that it’s possible to work hard and do everything right and still not be able to make it on your own.  They know what it’s like to depend on others for their daily bread.  They know how important that daily bread is, because they can’t always take it for granted that they’ll have it.  And they know just how incredibly important kindness is.  A kind person—whether a neighbor or a stranger—can literally make the difference between eating and going hungry.  When you can’t pay for hardly anything, you depend on others.  Being poor doesn’t guarantee that a person will be a Christian, of course, but Christians who are poor, whether here or across the world, understand that we all depend on God far more clearly than those of us with many possessions.

Here’s the thing.  Salvation is a gift from God.  Forgiveness, abundant life in God’s kingdom, these are all things that no human being could ever hope to earn.  There’s just no way.  Our sins are too great, our failures too many.  There is no good deed, or series of good deeds, or perfect behavior, that can buy God’s love.  We can’t earn it, and we absolutely, positively, do not deserve it.  On our own, salvation is impossible.  Rich or poor, we cannot be saved by our own merits.  Money and possessions can buy a good life in this world, but they are worth exactly jack in the kingdom to come.  And the more security you have in this world, the harder it is to believe that none of it matters in the long run.

The guy asked Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life.  He’s spent his life doing good works as if that will earn salvation.  But there’s nothing he can do.  There’s nothing we can do.  If he sells everything and gives it to the poor, maybe he’ll be vulnerable enough to learn to depend on God.  But even if he doesn’t, giving all that to the poor would mean a lot of hungry people fed, a lot of sick people healed.  That generosity will have a big impact on this world; but nothing we say or do has much impact on the next.  We do good things in this life because we should do good things, but we can’t earn our way into heaven.  We depend on God for that.  And with God, all things are possible.

Amen

Trying to Stop the Spirit

Lectionary 25B, September 30, 2018

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’”  John—one of Jesus’ disciples, one of the Twelve—saw someone casting out demons and thought to himself, “how terrible!”  This is one of many places in the Bible where faithful followers of God get upset that other people are doing things in God’s name.  Another example is in our first lesson from Numbers.  Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, out and among the general people instead of where Moses and the other Israelite leaders were gathered.  The Holy Spirit was with them, speaking in and through them!  And Joshua ask Moses to stop them!

When I was a kid, I thought stories like these were incredibly unbelievable.  Not the casting out demons and the prophesying; I had total faith that if demons existed God could give the power to cast them out, and that God could give people the spirit enough to speak in God’s name.  No, the thing that was unbelievable to me was the response people had to such demonstrations of God’s power.  Demons were being cast out, and they thought it was a bad thing?  The Holy Spirit was being poured out on people, and they thought it was a bad thing?  They wanted to stop it?  Come on, that is TOTALLY unbelievable.  It was obvious that the power of God was working!  Surely, God’s faithful people would never try and stop the Holy Spirit!

I don’t find it unbelievable any longer.  I’ve seen it too many times among God’s faithful people.  I’ve even done it myself!  There are a lot of reasons, but far too often we as God’s people see God at work in the world and try to shut it down.  Oh, we don’t say that’s what we’re doing, even to ourselves.  We find all sorts of justifications, ways to explain how it wasn’t really God at work, it wasn’t really good, and so we were right to try and shut it down.  Unfortunately, sometimes we succeed.  We shut down God’s work in and among us and in the larger society, and then we wonder where God is.

Joshua wanted to stop Eldad and Medad because he was jealous.  God’s Spirit had been given to the elders, to the in-crowd, to the ones who supported Moses.  That was exactly where Joshua wanted that power: with those he approved of, those he followed.  Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, and he knew all the stuff Moses had had to put up with, and here are two guys who refused to join Moses who are prophesying!  Obviously, it’s bad, Joshua thought.  Moses is God’s chosen leader.  Therefore, the Spirit of God can only come to those who follow Moses, those who are part of our party.  So no matter what it looks like, they can’t really have the Spirit of God.  Because if it was really the Spirit, they would have come and joined Moses.  Therefore, Eldad and Medad must be stopped.

The thing is, God’s power doesn’t work like that.  God’s Holy Spirit is not stingy.  It doesn’t measure out wisdom and power by the teaspoonful in the appropriate places.  The Holy Spirit is a bonfire, or a raging flood, or a rushing wind.  It overflows, it goes where it wills, it is not confined, it cannot be controlled.  It’s not bound by Human rules or conventions or traditions, but by the will of God.  The world would be a much better place if everyone were open to the Spirit, and followed where it led.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the leadership, the in group.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the people on the outside, the people who have no power or leadership role.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is in both places at once, with insiders and outsiders, the people we agree with and the people we don’t agree with.  Even when we are truly following God’s guidance, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t following God’s guidance as well.  Joshua had to learn that, and so do we.  The way we think God should organize things is not necessarily the way God chooses to organize things.  And when it comes down to a choice between our will and God’s will, the only faithful thing to do is choose to follow God.

Then there are the disciples.  They, too, were jealous.  There was a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name—publicly showing Jesus’ power, and taking tangible part of that power as well—and he wasn’t one of them!  Our Gospel reading this week is a continuation of last week’s Gospel, it’s the same day.  They’ve been arguing about which of them is the greatest, and Jesus told them they were missing the point.  He took a child and told them that they should be like children, that the Christian life is about service and sacrifice, not power and glory.  And they learned nothing from his words.  They’re still focused on power.  They don’t want to talk about sacrifice, or responsibility, or taking care of children and other vulnerable people.  They want power to be concentrated with them, in their little group.  Not with this random outsider who is doing more impressive things in Jesus’ name than they are.  They don’t care how much good this other guy does; he’s not one of them, he’s not doing the things they think he should be doing, so he needs to be stopped.  The love Jesus’ power, but only when they benefit, only when they’re at the center.  Their wants, needs, fears, and comfort level are more important than any of the people this other guy is helping.  And so they want him stopped.  They don’t care how many people are suffering.  All they care about is themselves.

It’s no wonder Jesus is so harsh with them.  They are not listening to him!  He’s trying to tell them to put love first, to care about others in word and deed, to put more attention into serving those in need than into their own power and comfort levels.  And how do they respond?  By doubling down on their selfish jealousy!  They are letting their own pride and selfishness become a stumbling block to following Jesus, and in the process they themselves are being stumbling blocks to others.  They are trying to shut down someone who is saving people from evil.  They are trying to stop people from getting help they desperately need.  They are trying to keep those who need Jesus most from receiving healing in his name.  They, who claim to be Jesus’ most devoted followers, are trying to stop Jesus’ power from working in the world, and all because it’s not happening in ways they approve of.  And it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong, and it’s hurting people.  All their self-righteous justifications are a great big millstone dragging them down and keeping them from understanding Jesus; and worse, they’re preventing others from following Jesus, too.

And we Christians today do the same thing.  When God is at work among us, when God’s Holy Spirit is giving wisdom or healing, all too often we try to shut it down.  Sometimes it’s because of jealousy, or because it’s coming from outside our comfortable circle.  A lot of the times we try to shut it down because it’s leading us places we don’t want to go, or trying to make us deal with people we don’t want to deal with.  People who have demons, literal or metaphorical.  People who don’t look like us, or sound like us.  People who are different.  Or sometimes we shut God’s Spirit down because it requires us to change.  Given a choice between our traditions and following Jesus, most Christians will take their traditions every time … and then claim that they’re being faithful.  God called us to do a particular thing long ago, and it was good, and we’re comfortable with it, and therefore we tell ourselves that God can’t ask us to do something new or different.  We place our trust in our traditions and rules and comfort level, instead of in the Holy Spirit of God.  And in so doing, we become stumbling blocks.  We get in the way of God’s work in the world.  We create a culture of saying no to everything.  We lose our saltiness.  We work against God’s will, and all the while claim we’re being faithful.

I like traditions, myself.  I get in a rut very easily, and I like my well-worn patterns.  But God keeps calling us to do new things.  And God keeps calling us to love and serve all people, not just the ones we like, but even the ones we don’t like.  So here’s my challenge for us: to open ourselves to how God is calling us here, and now.  And not just to the ideas that are comfortable, or that we’ve done before.  What is God calling us to do that might make us uncomfortable?  What is God calling us to do that we’ve never done before?  What is God calling us to do that we would rather not do?  How is God calling us to love and serve our neighbors that aren’t like us?  What would it be like to actually follow the Spirit wherever it led?

Let us pray.  Holy Spirit, living Word of God, breathe new life into us.  Break our fears and help us avoid the temptation to close our hearts and minds to you.  Stir up in us a passion for your will that will lead us out into the community to speak your word and act as God’s hands and feet in the world.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

The Kingdom of God is like mustard

Lectionary 11B, June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When Jesus told the crowds the parable of the mustard seed, they would have started laughing at the second sentence.  Guaranteed.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground—“ pause for incredulous laughter as the thought of someone being so deliberately idiotic as to plant mustard.  See, mustard wasn’t really a crop in the middle east in Jesus’ day.  It was—and still is—a weed.  And the variety native to the area is not the crop that we grow today to make the condiment out of.  Like all weeds, mustard is hardy, grows quickly, gets everywhere, and is really hard to get rid of once it’s established.  It is edible, both the greens and the seeds (the seeds are what the condiment is made of), but you don’t go around PLANTING it.  Because you can gather what you need from the wild plants on the hillside, and it will seed itself in your fields without any help from you at all.  The problem is keeping it out of your fields.  So, yes.  Jesus starts talking about someone deliberately planting mustard, and people are going to start laughing.

Which then begs the question.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed?  A big, mighty weed, sure, but still.  A weed.  That doesn’t fit our normal picture of God and God’s kingdom.  We tend to think of power and might and majesty and awesomeness and inspiration when we think of God.  Weeds are the opposite of that.  Weeds are the things that you groan when you see them.  Why not something like cedar, the tree of kings?  Cedars grow tall and majestic, the tallest trees in the holy land, and they were used to build palaces and temples and the wood is gorgeous and it smells beautiful and everyone looks up to cedar trees.  Or, if not a cedar tree, then a mountain, or something else grand and awe-inspiring.  Or maybe something useful, or profitable.  Something humans at least want.

Why a weed?  Well, maybe we shouldn’t assume that the kingdom of God will always be something we welcome.  I mean, let’s take Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke, where he says he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  That’s good news for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed.  If, however, we or people we like are profiting from the fact that others are poor, or benefiting that some people are oppressed, or if we and people we love are the ones holding people captive, then that message is not something we want to hear.  It’s not good news to us.  And there has never been a society in the history of the world—including modern America—in which everyone is free from oppression.  There have always been people taking advantage of one another, and creating systems of laws and culture which benefit some people at the expense of others.  And that’s simply not compatible with God’s kingdom.  Some aspects of our culture will work with the Kingdom, but some simply will not.  And people generally don’t welcome things that tell us we have to change, or tell us we need to give up power and influence and wealth.  So we might be tempted to ignore the growth of God’s kingdom, or even tempted to treat God’s kingdom as if it were a weed.  We might try to kill it, to preserve the garden of our community in the old, comfortable, sinful, oppressive patterns we’re used to.

The thing about mustard is that it’s one of those super-weeds that’s almost impossible to kill.  Like kudzu, or the Himalayan Blackberries we have in the Pacific Northwest.  I have spent many a long hour doing battle with Himalayan Blackberry vines.  No matter how vicious you are with them—no matter whether you chop them off, bulldoze them to the ground, poison them with the most deadly herbicides on the market—they ALWAYS come back.  Just like the Kingdom of God.  Humans can try to subvert it, prevent it, root it out, but it will come despite our best efforts.

The coming of the kingdom does not depend on human efforts.  We can work for the kingdom, yes, but each one of us is only one small part of that work.  Consider the first parable from our reading.  The farmer in that parable plants the seed … and then he waits.  He waits for the earth and sun and rain to do their work.  Eventually he harvests.  For all the things the farmer can do to ensure a good crop, some of the most important things are simply out of his control, as all farmers know.  When we treat the kingdom of God like good seed, we can till the soil and sow the seed and harvest it, but God is the one who gives us the seed and causes it to grow.  And when we treat the Kingdom of God like a weed and try to kill it, well, the Kingdom of God is stronger and more powerful than we are.  It always comes back, whether we like it or not, because God’s kingdom cannot be killed or prevented by any human power.  And although we should work for the Kingdom of God, it will come whether we do or not.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It grows like the dickens.  It’s not an awesome mountain or a graceful, majestic cedar, but it is large and full of life.  It’s a bush that grows much, much taller than humans.  It creates a lot of life, and it shares that life with others.  There aren’t that many big bushes or trees in the Holy Land; not many things that give shade or shelter from the harsh desert sun.  But the mustard bush does.  And so does the kingdom of God.  No matter what storms or burning sun or anything else comes into our life, the Kingdom of God provides shelter.  And that shelter isn’t just for the high and mighty—it’s for everything and everyone, even the ones we don’t necessarily think about, the ones most likely to get pushed out of the rest of the world.  Just like the mustard bush provides shelter for birds’ nests, the Kingdom of God provides shelter and a home for those who have no other home or shelter.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides food four our bodies and souls.  Mustard plants are edible, both the leaves and the seeds.  They’re one of those plants where, if you’re walking by the side of the road and you are poor and you have nothing else, you can harvest from the bush.  Just like God’s Kingdom provides for those who are poor and have nothing.  The kingdom of God provides food for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who feed people and make sure that all people have the resources they need to thrive.  The kingdom of God provides food for our soul through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which nourishes us and helps us grow in faith and love.

The kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides healing.  Pastes made out of mustard are one of the oldest healing salves there is, and mustard is especially effective for burns.  Even today, if you have a burn that’s not serious enough to go to the doctor with, you can use mustard—the regular condiment you find in your kitchen—and put some on the burn, and it will help it heal faster.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who work to prevent harm to people and heal them.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our souls through God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.

The kingdom of God is like a weed that will plant itself and grow anywhere, even when we try to root it out.  It grows from the smallest things into something huge that gives life and healing and shelter and freedom to those in need.  May we learn to recognize it when we see it, and value it as we should, and help plant and tend it.  And may the day come quickly when all people receive shelter and healing and nourishment from it.

Amen.